The State uber alles: Roman patriarch Horace offers his sons as a sacrifice for the State, as rendered by18th Century revolutionary French artist Jacques-Louis David. The heroic, stiff-armed pose offered by the sons was to become a salute favored by totalitarians of various hues.
"Patriotism is deeper than its symbolic expressions, than sentiments about place and kinship that move us to hold our hands over our hearts during the national anthem. It is putting the country first, before party or personal ambition, before anything."
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, speaking the authentic language of totalitarian nationalism.
Gary Qualls of Crawford, Texas would appear to be the kind of patriot who would earn John McCain's approval. I sincerely hope Mr. Qualls is a better man than that.
In was mid-November 2004 when Qualls learned that his 20-year-old son Louis had been killed in Iraq. Gary had just finished reading a letter from Louis when his youngest son David told him that three Marines were waiting on the doorstep.
The Marines, of course, were a casualty notification team. They had come to tell Gary that his oldest son -- an honor student, star athlete, martial artist, and devout Christian -- would never have sons of his own.
He had been killed in Iraq by somebody else's son -- somebody who saw Louis not as a liberator practicing altruism at gunpoint, but as a foreign invader to be expelled from his home country.
A Marine veteran himself, Gary had come close to death in a previous exercise in lethal humanitarianism in Bosnia. Some of his closest friends had been killed there. But nothing in his eventful life had prepared him for the news that his son was gone.
"I walked up to the front door," Gary later recalled, "and all I could do was look through the glass and stand there and look at them and I knew what was going on and I said `No... Not my baby!'"
Overcome by grief, this strong, proud man was driven to his knees by the burden of unbearable sorrow that descended on him in that moment.
At some point, Gary's grief turned into something markedly different. He was infuriated by the way another parent, Cindy Sheehan, reacted to the death of her son Casey in Iraq.
When Mrs. Sheehan traveled to Crawford in August 2005 to conduct a protest in front of the vacation home of the president who had sent Casey and Louis to die needlessly in Iraq, Gary -- backed by the usual assortment of jelly-belly jingoists and computer commandos -- decided to mount a counter-protest: Where Mrs. Sheehan and her supporters had created "Camp Casey" to symbolize their desire to end the war and spare other parents the grief of losing sons and daughters, Qualls and his associates sought to create "Camp Qualls" -- a symbol of their willingness to offer their children, and those of other parents, on the altar of Bush's war.
"If I have to sacrifice my whole family for the sake of our country and world, [and for] other countries that want freedom, I'll do that," insisted Qualls.
This stands in pronounced contrast with his first, and more honest, reaction to the news of Louis's death. At that moment, Mr. Qualls didn't turn to his youngest son David and say: "OK, it's your turn; pack your things and leave with these nice fellows from the Marine Corps."
No; his reaction was to collapse beneath the unspeakable agony known only to those who have lost a child. He was thrown from his feet when reality suddenly shifted polarity and the natural order was reversed: He would bury his son, rather than being buried by him.
That was his honest response to the horrible news, before the demands of "patriotism" dictated that he "revise and extend" his reaction.
Mr. Qualls has my unqualified sympathy, and my earnest prayers that God will comfort and strengthen him. But I can't credit his claim that he would be willing to sacrifice his family on behalf of the State that rules us, and strangers he has never met and will never know.
A willingness to make "sacrifices" of that kind is not commendable; it is utterly monstrous. All variants of totalitarian "patriotism" -- including that promoted by our rulers today -- require that their subjects cultivate that monstrous disposition. Which is to say, a disposition suitable to service of what Nietszche called "the coldest of all cold monsters."
Thomas Fleming of the Rockford Institute, one of the few authentic classical scholars writing about contemporary politics, has pointed out that sound morality (as understood by Aristotle and the Christian tradition) begins with responsibilities to the most intimate association, the family, and then works outward to more distant relationships -- neighborhoods, larger communities, and then the country. To invert that order, or ignore one's primary responsibilities, is to reveal one's self to be "that `tribeless, lawless, hearthless man' denounced by Homer," Fleming observes.
The kind of "patriotism" embraced by John McCain rests on the same inversion of the moral order Fleming describes: Country (that is, national state) "before anything," or, as the Germans put it in the anthem of the Reich, "uber alles." These perverse priorities were not unknown to "heroes" of pagan antiquity, of course. Notes Fleming: "The hero's dilemma is portrayed starkly in in the case of Agamemnon, Homer's `lord of men,' who could not launch his divinely sanctioned expedition against Troy until he had first sacrificed his daughter."
The sacrifice of Iphigenia was necessary to placate an offended Artemis, who had sent an adverse wind to bottle up the Greek fleet. The cruelty of Agamemnon's ambition can be seen in the ruse he employed to lure his daughter to her death: He told her that the altar on which she was to be sacrificed was to be used in her marriage to Achilles. In other words, he used his daughter's happy anticipation of children as the bait in a trap intended to kill her, so that he could get on with the worthy project of killing the sons and daughters of others.
According to the story, Iphigenia was transported safely to a distant island, and a suitable animal was slaughtered in her place. The Trojan War -- intended to be a quick and glorious punitive expedition -- became a lengthy and pointless debacle, as wars generally do.
A similar tale of wartime child sacrifice is presented in Livy's account of the Horatti, or sons of Horace. During one of the countless conflicts in Rome's early expansion, Horace's triplet sons volunteered to meet the Curiatti triplets in a variant on single combat: The victors would win, on behalf of their city-state, possession of a small and by now long-forgotten village.
The battle claimed two of Horace's sons. The victory celebration claimed the life of one of his daughters, who was killed by the surviving brother for being romantically involved with an enemy of Rome.
French artist Jacques-Louis David, who became one of the most important propagandists for the Revolution, used his rendering of the Oath of the Horatii (see the illustration at the top of this essay) to encapsulate the "virtues" demanded by the patria: "Patriotism, fraternity, and martyrdom," as exemplified by Horace, who was willing to surrender his family for the State.
The stiff-armed pose of Horace's sons "was to become the standard manner of taking the revolutionary oath," wrote historian Simon Schama in Citizens, his magisterial account of the French Revolution. And many of those who took that oath were more than willing to kill those who didn't embrace the Revolution's priorities, such as the traditional Catholics of the Vendee.
Revolutionary oath, stiff-armed salute: David's influential rendering of the "Tennis Court Oath."
On March 12, 1793, a Jacobin press gang visited St. Floret in the Vendee to inform them that the Revolution required their children as conscripts in a war against other European Catholics. They had arrived to claim their quota of the 300,000 men, aged 18 to 40, that Paris intended to conscript into the revolutionary army.
Unwilling to fight, kill, and die on behalf of what they regarded as a God-less political system, the Vendeans were more than willing to do battle on behalf of their children and their freedom to worship: They fell upon the draft-nappers with pitchforks, cudgels, and any other farming implements that could be employed as weapons.
"The Vendeans resented the fact that their able-bodied young men should be taken far away from the farms that needed their labor to fight men with whom they had no quarrel, on behalf of those who were implacably opposed to every belief they had," observes British historian Michael Davies.
The Vendeans fought on their home soil on behalf of their kinfolk, their neighbors, and those with whom they shared a religious communion. This is true patriotism, whether or not one approves of it. Those who assailed them on behalf of the Jacobin regime did so in the name of a murderous abstraction called the State, and they displayed unstinting zeal in shedding what their hymn of hate called "impure blood." They often displayed demonic creativity in their labors, drowning thousands of bound Vendeans in the Loire River in what they called "Republican Baptisms."
It is the Jacobin concept of State-centered "patriotism" that prevails today, rather than the family-centered, telluric patriotism displayed by the Vendeans, who fought to hold back the State's assault on the Permanent Things.
American Jacobinism, circa 1942: Schoolchildren participate in the Pledge of Allegiance by using the American variant of the same Jacobin salute favored by Italian Fascists and German National Socialists (left). Below, orphans and other poor children display the same gesture en masse during the Pledge before watching a movie in 1938.
More than 250,000 Vendeans were slaughtered by Jacobin patriots, just as hundreds of thousands of Southerners were killed -- most of them in defense of home, hearth, and immediate community, not chattel slavery -- in Lincoln's Jacobinical war of consolidation. Whatever his weaknesses, Robert E. Lee is worthy of respect for his refusal to lift his sword against his "country" -- Virginia, home to his family and everything he valued -- on behalf of the State, something that can neither be seen nor felt but can kill millions without remorse.
The more abstract the object of allegiance, the more dangerous that attachment becomes. The grander a ruler's ambitions, the deadlier they become.
Today our rulers -- like the Soviets a generation ago -- preach a gospel of universal liberation through the supposedly skilled application of deadly force. And they expect that we will be willing to offer our children on behalf of "our country and the world," as Gary Qualls professed to be.
"Patriotism," we are and will be told, requires nothing less.
This is "patriotism" of the variety displayed in Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, and Horace's willingness to sacrifice his sons.
A more suitable example of genuinely patriotic sacrifice was displayed by the defiant Antigone. When asked by Creon, the evil ruler her brother died trying to overthrow, if she had defied a royal edict by dressing and properly burying her brother's body -- which was forbidden on pain of death -- Antigone replied:
"Yes [I violated that decree], for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict ... nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.... [I]f I am to die before my time, I count that a gain: for when any one lives, as I do, compassed about with evils, can such an one find aught but gain in death? So for me to meet this doom is trifling grief; but if I had suffered my mother's son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved."
Antigone understood that no mortal "law" can nullify God's eternal laws of justice, which dictate that we are to place our loyalty to family above that we give to any government or ruler. She died a horrible death in testimony of her understanding that when the interests of State and family conflict, the State comes in a very poor second -- such a distant second, in fact, that it would take a telescope larger than Mt. Palomar's to see it.
This is my country, or at least the most important part of it (clockwise, from upper left): Isaiah Athanasius, William Wallace, Katrina Antigone, Jefferson Leonidas, and Sophia Faith Grigg (click to enlarge).
My first and unconditional allegiance is to God. Immediately below it comes my loyalty and responsibility to those whose faces I saw over my cradle, those who shared the home in which I grew up, and those whose faces I expect to see over my deathbed. To that number I can add a few genuine friends who have become family in a sense that is something less than blood or adoption, but more than a metaphor.
I love and cherish many things about the United States of America. But the "country" that commands my allegiance is described in the paragraph immediately above.
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Dum spiro, pugno!